E.T. Atari games uncovered in US landfill

Last updated 13:42 28/04/2014

DIGGING UP GOLD: An Atari cartridge and packaging recovered from the old Alamogordo landfill.

FAN: Former landfill worker Randy Horn shows his personal copy of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

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One of video gaming's most pervasive urban legends has proven to be true, as a dig in a US landfill has uncovered a trove of game cartridges and equipment believed to have been dumped there by Atari following the fall of the games industry in the early '80s.

Having lost more than US$300 million in a single quarter, the legend goes, Atari repurposed their manufacturing plant in Texas and drove its contents - including millions of unsold copies of the expensive and critically panned E.T. video game - out to bury under concrete in the desert.

While many - including E.T.'s designer - have cast doubt on the story which was first reported by The New York Times and others in 1983, over the weekend a dig in New Mexico  led by Microsoft has yielded a mountain of gaming refuse, including entire intact shipping boxes filled with E.T. cartridges.

The dig was part of a documentary spearheaded by Microsoft's Xbox Entertainment Studios, and Xbox's Larry "Major Nelson" Hryb was on hand to live tweet the uncovering of the first bits of discarded electronics that confirmed the long-rumoured dump.

"Urban legend CONFIRMED," he tweeted.

E.T.:The Extra Terrestrial is a game that exemplifies the excess and lack of quality control that drove the failure of the games industry in the early '80s. Having paid a huge amount of money for the licensing rights, and having promised its licensors a big return, Atari rushed a game to market that is widely considered to be one of the worst of all time. With interest in the flooded games market already waning, Atari was left holding the huge majority of the 5 million E.T. copies it produced.

The uncovering of the mass game grave came as no surprise to James Heller, a former Atari manager who was invited to the dig site. In 1983, the company tasked him with finding an inexpensive way to dispose of 728,000 cartridges they had in a warehouse in El Paso. After a few local kids ran into trouble for scavenging and the media started calling him about it, he decided to pour a layer of concrete over the games.

"I never heard about again it until June 2013, when I read an article about E.T. being excavated," he said. He was not aware of the controversy and never spoke out "because nobody asked".

It's unclear exactly how many copies of the game were buried in the New Mexico desert, or what was to be done with them now - the documentarians have indicated cartridges would be sold, although a copy of E.T. rarely fetches more than a few dollars on eBay, but the dig continues.

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- Sydney Morning Herald


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